It’s a light story, yet it tells of some very heavy work involved by the people who make it happen each year.
This account is about the lights on the Quintard Avenue median and “the elves” of the Parks and Recreation Department who make sure the avenue comes colorfully alive each holiday season. Since 1998, the department has lit Anniston with bright lights for several blocks, this year from the intersections of Sixth Street to 15th Street. The idea, which came from then Mayor Gene Stedham, has been carried out annually by PARD employees. Trees sparkle with white lights, and bushes are adorned with strands of colored lights. The angel scene across from Wells Fargo is outlined in blue this year, in memory of fallen police officer Justin Sollohub, according to Angie Shockley, project coordinator. The trees in that display are wrapped in white bulbs, in memory of Shockley’s mother, Joyce Shockley (who loved the color white), and fellow worker Robin Brothers’ grandmother, Lorene Renfroe.
“This year, we made this space a remembrance block,” Shockley said.
Brothers and Shockley put in many 8 a.m.-7 p.m. workdays to complete the glittering night showcase.
“We try to make it different each year,” said Shockley, who has chalked up 11 years of experience in decorating the thoroughfare’s median. “We’ll always have the Nativity scene because that’s what Christmas is about.” The figures of Mary, Joseph and the Christ child are across from Parker Memorial Baptist Church.
Last year, Brothers added, the two planned a more contemporary color scheme, with the shapes of tree trunks marked in red and the limbs in green or blue. This year, the two returned to the traditional, decorating the 80 trees with a uniform plan of white and colored lights.
They take their time in trimming the trees and bushes, starting in mid-September to define their vision. First, they decide on the color scheme that will tie the entire display together. Then, the elves go to PARD’s basement, which becomes their North Pole workshop. There, they check the many strands of lights, making sure all of the bulbs work (each strand holds at least 100 bulbs). They also make sure the strands are rolled tight before loading them for the short trip to Quintard.
On the first week of November, they place the lights on trees and scenes, check the lights for brightness, and line up the extension cords in sequence to connect with the four to six outlets on each block. Finally, on Thanksgiving Eve, the lights go on, according to Shockley.
“It’s a big moment for us,” she said proudly, “and a big welcome for visitors to our city.”
The median’s decorations are indeed noticed by many. According to officials of East Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission, the traffic count shows that an average of 39,500 vehicles travel Quintard each day.
The month of December is spent guarding the lights.
“We’ve discovered that bulbs and extension cords were missing in past years,” Shockley explained. “But that doesn’t spoil our joy in it all.”
On a cloudy day, the lights may pop on early, and they automatically turn off if it’s raining, Brothers said. But they are timed to shine from dusk to dawn on a clear day.
The project takes teamwork, according to Shockley. From eight to 10 people work each block, and there’s a spirit of fun in getting the work done.
“We enjoy competition on who has created the prettiest tree,” she said. But after mastering the art of trimming the trees and scenes, Shockley and Brothers see every mistake in decorations elsewhere, they said. They’ve seen big displays in Birmingham, Nashville and Savannah, and in each site, tiny lights were missing from images.
“It drives us nuts,” Shockley laughs.
The project takes patience. Much more time is taken to put up the lights than to take them down, which the department’s maintenance crew will do the first week of January. For that matter, just how many hours do Brothers and Shockley spend on illuminating the city’s main avenue?
The two say they aren’t concerned about their time spent.
“Elves don’t count hours,” Shockley answered. “We count the smiles on kid’s faces through the car windows.”